How do people agree on when to switch between languages?

Research Digest by Michela Bonfieni

A recent study reveals how bilinguals who speak the same two languages implicitly agree with each other on when to switch between their languages. The study also shows that switching between languages in the middle of a conversation is as natural and systematic as any other aspect of language.

Bilingual speakers often use bits of their two languages in their sentences. For example, speaking about taxes and savings, two Spanish-English speakers may go about like this:

Speaker 1: “qué dinero?” (‘what money?’)

Speaker 2: “el dinero ese que nos van a dar with the taxes.” (‘the money that they’re going to give us with the taxes.’)

This behaviour is very frequent among bilinguals who live in contexts where both their languages are used. Researchers on bilingualism refer to this as ‘code-switching’, and have dedicated a lot of attention to understand the way it works. Some of the questions they are more interested in are: how people agree on when it is OK to go from one language to the other; and how people avoid getting confused when switching between their languages.

Two researchers at the Pennsylvania State University (USA) decided to look at a big data-set of Spanish-English bilinguals to answer these questions. They selected a huge collection of transcribed conversations between Spanish-English bilinguals and analysed what happened in each conversation when the two speakers inserted one or more words from Spanish in an English sentence, or the other way around.

Specifically, they wanted to see if people were more likely to switch between languages if the person who they were talking to had switched between languages in the same conversation. In other words, they wanted to see if bilingual speakers somehow imitate each other when switching between languages. We all imitate each other to some extent when conversing: we choose the same words, or the same type of sentence, sometimes we adopt a similar accent or even intonation. Researchers call this type of linguistic imitation ‘priming’, and suggest that it is a fundamental mechanism to adapt to the environment and understand each other.

In this study, the two researchers showed that bilinguals were indeed more likely to switch between languages not only if it had happened in the previous sentence, but even if words from the other language had been used as far as ten sentences before. This suggests that they did imitate each other in the long run. Interestingly, though, the researchers also found that people would also ‘imitate themselves’, that is to say, that speakers were consistent in their combined used of the two languages, even when speaking to a different person. This first result suggests that choosing to switch between languages is a consistent behaviour. It also shows that people adapt their choices to the context and to the person they are talking to.

Moreover, the researchers were interested in understanding how the speakers in their study were able to keep one of the two languages as a reference point. What they call the “language of reference” is the language in which the majority of grammatical bits are expressed when switching – bits of the language that keep sentences together, such as the words ‘that’ and ‘the’, as well as verbs expressing actions but also time (for example, ‘ran’ as opposed to ‘run’ conveys information about the past). In other words, they wanted to understand whether switching between languages has some consistency grammatically, or whether ultimately speakers get confused as to what language they are using exactly. Their analysis showed that speakers were choosing the reference language consistently not only with respect to the previous sentence, but to up to the last ten sentences, and consistently within and between sentences.

Switching between languages is a frequent and visible phenomenon in bilinguals, and shows that the two languages of bilingual speakers are always active. But this study shows that this behaviour is not different to the way language works in general, and that it is not random but consistent, and probably useful to the mechanism of adaptation both to the environment and other speakers, so as to ultimately achieve successful communication.

This study was published in the Journal of Memory and Language by Melinda Fricke and Gerrit Jan Kootstra. You can read it at:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2016.04.003

Short-term language learning aids mental agility

Mental agility can be boosted by even a short period of learning a language, suggests a new study by Bilingualism Matters researchers.

Students aged 18 – 78 were tested on their attention levels before and after a one-week intensive Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. Researchers compared these results with those of people who completed a one week course that did not involve learning a new language, and with a group who did not complete any course.

At the end of the week, participants on the language course performed significantly better than those who did not take any course. This improvement was found for learners of all ages, from 18 to 78 years. There was no difference between those who took a non-language course and those who took no course.

Researchers also found that these benefits could be maintained with regular practice. Nine months after the initial course, all those who had practised five hours or more per week improved from their baseline performance. [Read more…]

Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties. [Read more…]

New funded project on multilingualism

We are delighted to announce that Bilingualism Matters deputy director Dr Thomas Bak is Co-Investigator on a major new project on multilingualism.

The four year project, “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS)”, will seek to understand multilingualism through a range of interdisciplinary research themes – from literature, film and culture, to diversity and social cohesion. Dr Thomas Bak will lead a strand on cognition, health and well-being. The researchers will cover languages taught as part of a modern languages curriculum in the UK (e.g. French, German, Mandarin, Spanish), European minority languages (e.g. Catalan, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Ukrainian), and community languages (e.g. Cantonese, Polish, Punjabi).

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Open World Research Initiative which aims to raise the profile and visibility of Modern Languages and the crucial role they play in society.

More information:
Find out more about the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative, including other funded projects: Open World Research Initiative

Bilingualism: what about dialects?

Commonly, when thinking about bilingualism our first thought goes to people who grew up in a family speaking more than one standard language… But how about the case of people who use both a standard language, such as English or Italian, as well as a local dialect? This is a very common situation in many countries around the world.

From the linguistic point of view, regional dialects are just as rich and complex as standard languages, even if, in many cases, they have similar vocabularies, grammars, and sounds. But from a historical and administrative point of view, standard languages and dialects have very different statuses, and this is often reflected in the different contexts in which each is used. For example, the standard language may be encouraged at school while the local variant may be used in the home. This difference in statuses, together with the linguistic similarities, means that many people may overlook the bilingual experience of those who also speak a dialect. In other words, they are not considered bilingual at all. [Read more…]

Knowing multiple languages can improve recovery from stroke

People who speak more than one language are more likely to recover from a stroke than monolingual patients, research suggests.

Researchers have found that people who speak multiple languages are twice as likely to recover their mental functions after stroke as those who speak one language.

The study, co-authored by Bilingualism Matters Deputy Director Dr. Thomas Bak, gathered data from 608 stroke patients in Hyderabad, India. The patients were assessed on their attention skills and the ability to retrieve and organise information.

The researchers found about 40 per cent of bilingual patients had normal mental function following a stroke, compared with 20 per cent of single language patients. [Read more…]

Learning to read: does being bilingual help or hinder?

Does learning to read in one language help children learn to read in another language? Research on children learning to read in two languages with similar writing systems (e.g. English and Spanish) suggests that it might. But what if the writing systems differ as dramatically as, for example, English and Chinese? Does this still give bilinguals an advantage? Or might knowledge of one language actually be a hindrance in learning to read in another, very different, language? [Read more…]

Workshop on Bilingualism and Executive Function: An Interdisciplinary Approach

18-19 May 2015, New York

Bilingualism Matters researchers Dr. Thomas Bak and Prof. Antonella Sorace joined language scientists and cognitive psychologists from around the world to discuss the relationship between speaking more than one language, and other mental skills such as the ability to focus attention or switch between tasks. These skills are often referred to as “executive function”.

There are many different ways of testing this sort of ability. For example, one common task for children involves asking them to sort cards first by the picture they show, and then by the colour of that picture – ignoring the picture itself. A common task for adults involves asking them to imagine they are in a lift, or elevator. When they hear a high pitch tone they count down one floor, and when they hear a low pitch tone they count up one floor – this forces people to ignore the usual association between high pitch tones and moving or counting upwards. [Read more…]

Two languages on the tip of your tongue

We’ve all had the experience of being sure that we know a word but struggling to remember it, no matter how hard we try. This sensation is called a ‘tip-of-the tongue state’, and researchers are interested in it because it can tell us more about how people bring to mind (or ‘retrieve’) words.

Research on bilingualism has looked at tip-of-the-tongue states, and one of the things that emerged from these studies is that bilingual speakers are more likely to experience such states than monolinguals. This is not due to a lack of vocabulary: bilinguals truly know the right word – they just find it harder to retrieve it. Why is that?

[Read more…]

Growing up bilingual: quality of exposure, not just quantity, matters!

The amount of time that children spend listening to each of their languages, be it their parents’ two languages in bilingual families, or the family and the community language, has a huge influence on how quickly they develop their language skills. So, quantity matters!

Does quality matter, too? This is less clear. Partly this is because less research has been conducted on this topic, and partly because of the huge range of experiences that children face when growing up bilingual. Quantity is easy to define and measure. By contrast, measuring quality is hard: there are many different factors that could make the language experience of one bilingual child qualitatively different from the language experience of another. [Read more…]